U.S. lawmakers criticize Egypt aid cuts, consider changing law


By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Some U.S. lawmakers said onTuesday they were unhappy about cuts in Washington's aid toEgypt announced earlier this month after authorities in Cairoused violence to put down protests.

They also said they were considering changes to a U.S. lawthat bars sending assistance to governments that have beendeemed to have seized power through a coup.

Members of the House of Representatives Foreign AffairsCommittee said the aid cuts could affect close ties to thestrategically important country, which controls the Suez canaland is the most populous Arab state.

"I support a continued and robust military relationship withEgypt," California Republican Ed Royce, the committee'schairman, said at a hearing on Egypt.

Some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats on thecommittee also expressed concern, questioning whether the WhiteHouse had consulted with Israel, which has a peace treaty withEgypt, before making the aid decision.

Suspending aid could jeopardize decades of close cooperationwith Egypt's military, said Representative Eliot Engel of NewYork, the panel's top Democrat.

"These actions make it tougher for us to influence them, noteasier, because I think if you're helping, you have someinfluence. If you're... pulling away, then their attitude isgoing to be, 'Well, why do we have to listen to you?'" he said.

The Obama administration said on Oct. 9 that it wouldwithhold deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft and othermilitary equipment, as well as $260 million in cash aid, fromEgypt's military-backed government until it made progress ondemocracy and human rights.

Egypt's army toppled the country's first democraticallyelected president, Mohamed Mursi, on July 3.

Under U.S. law, the administration is obliged to halt aid toa country where it assesses that a coup has taken place.

This month officials told congressional aides they hadquietly decided to respect that law, even though administrationearlier said it was under no obligation to decide whether a couphad taken place and so did not have to apply the law.

Administration officials said they wanted changes in thecoup language, saying it kept them from continuing someeducation and health projects they would like to continue butcould not because they involved the Cairo government.

"We're looking for flexibility," said Alina Romanowski,deputy assistant administrator at the US Agency forInternational Development's Middle East bureau.

"The Egyptian government has told us that they understoodour decision (on cutting aid), they're disappointed by it, butthey understand it. And they have told us that they are quiteprepared to continue working with us," said Beth Jones, actingassistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense forinternational security affairs, said the Pentagon had detectedno change in its relationship with Egypt's military and thearmy's operations were not affected.

Egypt's army denies it carried out a coup, saying itresponded to the will of the people after massive streetprotests. Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood has refused to work withthe new government, which it says staged a coup and sabotagedthe country's democracy.

It was not clear whether there would be any change in thecoup language. Democrats in the Senate in particular stronglysupport the provision, as do many in the House.

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